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A Bear in Your Sight is Worth Two in the Bush

By Carla De Lira and Cynthia Hollenbeck

If you’ve ever hiked in the wilderness and seen a large object nearby, you may have asked yourself, “Was that a bear or a bush?” To master’s student in natural resource sciences at Washington State University, Cullen Anderson, the question is an important component of his research. Cullen studies how the black bear population data from North Cascades National Park in Washington state can provide important information for park management decision making.

 Cullen Anderson with Bear Decoy at North Cascades National Park
Cullen Anderson carrying one of his bear decoys for his
fieldwork at North Cascades National Park

For example, although the park’s lower elevation areas are currently forested and moist, because of climate change they are at risk of becoming drier. Affected wildlife, like black bears, will need to move to higher elevation forests in the mountains. However, this migration poses potential issues for wildlife conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of brown bears (last confirmed park sighting in 1990) whose habitats in these higher elevation areas are already occupied by black bears. In addition, because longer summers provide more chances for hikers to run into a black bear, the migration presents complications for recreation management.

Cullen’s fascination with wildlife conservation began when he was a child. “I wanted to be a biologist early on,” he said. “When I was 5, I met Jeff Corwin, host of the ‘Jeff Corwin Experience’ on Animal Planet. He was my hero. My mother was a journalist and writing a story about him. She knew she couldn’t go without bringing me.”

As Cullen came of age, he’d thought of becoming an artist, architect, and astrophysicist, but his interest in wildlife never wavered. “When I started touring colleges in high school,” he said, “I just decided I didn’t want to be a concept artist. I realized my wildlife and conservation interests were constant. I haven’t looked back since!”

As an undergraduate at Auburn University in Alabama, Cullen’s interest in wildlife conservation led to an exciting opportunity to study humans’ impact on jaguars and their habitats in Belize. In addition, he learned about the current black and brown bear populations through an internship at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Cullen applied for graduate school at WSU because of its high concentration of reputable faculty and large mammal research. Cullen’s studies are supported by USDA McIntire-Stennis Funds, the WSU Quantitative Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Lab, and the Francis Rush Bradley Excellence Fund. During his first semester of graduate school, he presented, “Variation in Jaguar Occupancy in Response to Differential Land Use Practices by Human Communities” at the Wildlife Society’s 2019 annual conference.

The project that Cullen works on was initiated by his advisor, Jeff Manning , assistant professor in WSU’s School of the Environment in collaboration with Dr. Jason Ransom of North Cascades National Park, who identified this topic as a research priority for the park. Cullen joined this study after expressing his interest in forming his master’s thesis around climate change and providing answers to questions that might be helpful in park management. The agency provided logistical support, advice, and resources, which included decades of bear-sighting data.

Cullen’s method of analyzing and correcting the data includes setting up black bear-like decoys and asking visitors if they’d spotted them. (Visitors were unaware that the decoys were placed ahead of time.) Cullen chose to forego recording observations by people who only saw the decoy after he let them know it existed.

During his first field collection, Cullen discovered that many visitors walked right past the decoys in plain sight and therefore, made no report. These preliminary observations were in-line with the expectation that wildlife sightings reports understate the true number.

Cullen explains that he would have been surprised if a large majority of people spotted the decoys, especially the ones placed about 100 feet off-trail. “People who missed the decoys were usually surprised. They’d walk back down the trail to see if they could spot them.” He asserts he had not anticipated the sense of satisfaction families would feel from these learning opportunities. “It’s like an ‘I spy’ puzzle with purpose,” he said. “People learned about science and research while learning about bear safety, particularly that we may not see a bear even if it is close by.” Cullen plans to continue collecting data through summer 2021.

After earning his master’s degree, Cullen plans to pursue a Ph.D. “It’s important to me,” he said, “that I diversify my education, so I have access to a wide array of perspectives.” He’d like to gain work experience that involves policy making before pursuing his Ph.D. “I want my research and career to be useful, and I can’t do that without better understanding the systems that academia supports.”

Rather than relying on government agencies or non-profit organizations to tell him what kind of research would be helpful, Cullen wants to experience those perspectives first-hand. That way, when he does start a Ph.D. program, he’ll be able to ask questions and design studies he knows will be useful to policymakers because he will experience all parts of the conservation equation.

Cullen said he’s not sure yet what his Ph.D. focus will look like. He’s interested in continental scale conservation that accounts for shifting climate envelopes, i.e., climate conditions that are suitable for different species. For example, black bears prefer forest conditions with plenty of berries, which is why they may become isolated on mountains because lower elevations become dry and scrubby.

The climate envelope for black bears may shift in elevation. Coyotes, a species that prefers drier and scrubbier habitat, may increase in numbers in those lower elevations. Climate envelopes can also move with longitude and latitude. The northern extent of the Ponderosa Pine is in southern British Columbia, but as the climate warms and becomes drier, they may be able to move farther north.

After earning his degrees, Cullen wants to secure a position in research and/or a management position at a non-profit organization or at a government agency. He wants to be involved in the decision-making process, which will have a lasting impact on the protection of species affected by climate change. “Conservation does not happen without policy making, ” he said. He’s interested in understanding the process of policy making so he can conduct research and support meaningful science.

Cullen’s appreciation for wildlife and their ecosystems is evident through his hobbies as a birder, (or birdwatcher), and wildlife photographer. Recently, he won First Place in the WSU Outdoor Recreation Center’s 2020 Photo Contest under the Wildlife Still Life category. We have included his winning photo: Cedar Waxwing.

 Cullen Anderson's first-place photo of the Cedar Waxwing
Cullen Anderson’s first-place photo of the Cedar Waxwing

Doctoral Student Researches Language and Technology to Help Others

By Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill and Cynthia Hollenbeck

Jose Riera, Ph.D. candidate in Washington State University’s College of Education, focuses his research on developing computer applications to help foreign language learners, immigrants, and individuals with communicative disabilities to improve their pronunciation skills. According to Jose, there are 1 billion foreign language learners, 275 million immigrants, and 550 million individuals with communicative disabilities worldwide. With these numbers, Jose hopes this research will make a notable impact on the language-learning world.

One of the main challenges for second language learners is understanding and articulating unfamiliar new sounds in their target language. Jose believes that by providing these learners with significant auditory and visual cues, we can help support and enhance their pronunciation.

In 2019, Riera started in the WSU College of Education’s Language, Literacy, and Technology doctorate program. He decided to come to WSU for two reasons: the first was because WSU’s College of Education enabled him to integrate his interest in technology and languages in teaching. The second was that by attending WSU, he could be closer to his daughters, Natalia and Marilyn. Not only that, he’s building a Coug legacy, because his daughter Natalia is a junior in the WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Go Cougs!

In Jose’s first semester at WSU, he presented his research proposal, which focused on using facial recognition technology to teach phonetics. This research was developed in collaboration with Howard Davis, Mark Vandam, Don McMahon, and Professor Takeshi Saitoh of the Kyushu Institute of Technology.  Jose’s proposal was selected as the overall winner of the WSU’s Research Week Travel Grant Competition.

Jose said he was inspired by his immigrant students when he worked as an ESL instructor at the Pleasanton Public Library, as well as his colleagues with disabilities at the Center for Independent Living in Oakland, California.  In his research, he relies on the language learning theoretical frameworks proposed by linguistic scholars, such as Stephen Krashen, Tracy Derwing, and Olusola Adesope.  Jose’s research has already earned him significant recognition, including nine research and academic awards from notable organizations, including Facebook, The Seattle Times, and the Brain Injury Association of Washington.

Author and human rights advocate Timothy Pina once said, “When you work to inspire others […] Your reward is in helping better themselves, lifting your life in the process.” This quote has become one that Jose lives by. He said that the quote motivates him to
continue giving back to WSU, a school that has supported him actively during the past years.

Jose is a co-founder of a virtual support group called “e-Togetherness” that was created at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. The group’s goal is to connect masters, doctorate, and professional students virtually during these isolated times. In addition, Jose is a member of WSU’s Disabled Students and Allies Club. “I know firsthand,” Jose said, “how motivated we are to belong in our society, and I saw how my research could facilitate that process.”

In Fall 2020, Jose co-authored a meta-analysis of computer-assisted pronunciation technology (CAPT) applications in second language instruction with Dr. Olusola Adesope and Oluwafemi Johnson. One of their key findings showed that CAPT was very effective when used to practice the pronunciation of targeted sounds that exist in the second language but may not exist in the learner’s native tongue. Their conclusions will help language teachers and software developers understand how to use CAPT applications more effectively.

After earning his doctoral degree, Jose will pursue faculty positions in higher education at universities that share his passion for promoting the social advancement of underserved diverse communities.

Horticulturist Explores Genetics of Resistance to Fire Blight in Apples

By Cynthia Hollenbeck and Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill

Sarah Kostick, Ph.D., is making great strides in the world of apple breeding at Washington State University. By investigating resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in apples to enable more efficient development of apple varieties with resistance to fire blight, she has found that specific genomic regions (also called genetic loci) are associated with resistance, and much more.

Fire blight is a devastating bacterial disease that affects a range of apple cultivars (varieties). This disease has the potential to cause tree death and, depending on the year, can destroy entire orchards. Fire blight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, can infect the flowers, shoots, and rootstock of the tree, potentially causing tree death. If environmental conditions are conducive to disease development, fire blight infections can result in severe economic losses for apple growers in Washington state.

Sarah works in horticulture with an emphasis in plant breeding, conducting research with WSU Professor of Horticulture, Kate Evans. Most recently, Sarah shared three major highlights that directly correlate to her findings.

Sarah’s data revealed the complexity of inheritance of resistance to fire blight. Her research identified and validated multiple elite sources of resistance. These “elite” sources, i.e., cultivars that have superior fruit quality and resistance to fire blight, may be used as parents in the breeding program.

Sarah said, “I determined the susceptibility levels of 94 apple cultivars. Although most of the apple cultivars I examined were moderately to highly susceptible, I confirmed that several cultivars, including Enterprise and Frostbite, were highly resistant. These highly resistant apple cultivars could be used as parents in breeding programs.”

In the past year, Sarah has published two separate journal articles in collaboration with Professor Evans. In a journal article from 2019, their findings explored the susceptibility levels of 94 cultivars. Most recently, in an article published this year, Sarah, John Norelli, Soon Li Teh, and Kate Evans conducted research and wrote about quantitative variation and heritability estimates of fire blight resistance in a pedigree-connected apple germplasm set.

Sarah wanted to see what the variation in resistance/susceptibility to fire blight levels among progeny looked like when different parents were used. These parents are often important in apple breeding programs. Like human siblings, apple siblings can share certain characteristics.

What the group found is that in most full-sibling families (progeny that share two parents in common) there was variation for resistance/susceptibility to fire blight, including families where both parents were classified as highly susceptible. In other words, when two highly susceptible parents were crossed, most progeny were susceptible, but there were progeny that had low susceptibility levels (lower than either parent). This indicates that a parent’s susceptibility classification is not necessarily indicative of how the progeny will perform.

In a separate section of her research, Sarah used statistical analyses to determine the regions of the apple genome associated with variation. Her findings highlighted three different genomic regions associated with resistance to fire blight.

  1. Increased understanding of resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in breeding relevant germplasm.
  2. More informed section of breeding parents. Breeders can use information gained from research studies to select parents in their breeding programs.
  3. Loci detected can be targeted for DNA test development so that breeders can more efficiently breed for resistance to fire blight.

Sarah successfully defended her dissertation, entitled “Phenotypic Characterization and Genetic Dissection of Resistance to Fire Blight in a Pedigree-Connected Apple Breeding Germplasm Set,” in November 2020. She hopes to continue to hone her skills as a plant breeder as she takes the next step in her career.

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Alexandria Hudson

Zebrafish and Hearing Loss


By Yue Hang

It was a typical Thursday for Alexandria Hudson, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the Washington State University Vancouver campus. She went to the Coffin Lab, where she worked, to check the result of her experiment.

“The result will be used for my presentation at the Association for Research in Otolaryngology conference next week,” says Alexandria, though she had no idea what the result would be. “It’s the fun part of science—sometimes, the results will be surprising.”

The upcoming conference is not the first one Alexandria has participated in. Since starting her Ph.D. program in 2016, she has attended more than eight conferences, both local and national, where she presented her research findings and learned from other professionals in her field.

“The beauty of graduate school is you are allowed freedom to develop your project and take it wherever you want to go,” she says.

Alexandria is studying hearing loss in Dr. Allison Coffin’s lab at WSU Vancouver. She says that one cause of hearing loss comes from the use of aminoglycoside antibiotics that, while they fight infections, also kill the hearing cells in the ear, which do not regenerate.

Alexandria is using zebrafish in her research because they have hearing cells similar to humans. She ultimately hopes to discover drug compounds that can mitigate the noxious effects of the antibiotic and help develop a therapeutic treatment that can protect the hearing cells.

Dr. Allison Coffin is a sensory neuroscientist focused on hearing loss and prevention. Students in her lab use fish and rodent models to understand more about human hearing. The lab also examines the impact of aquatic pollutants on fish sensory function.

“Alex is a leader in the lab,” says Dr. Coffin. “Her ideas about the interplay between immune function and hearing loss are exciting and will drive the field forward.”

Finding a research niche

Alexandria met the word “science” for the first time when she was six. One day after school, her mother, who was working full time and taking classes, began to study. Watching her, Alexandria thought, “I will study too,” so she grasped a science book and began to read.

“I didn’t really understand what science was because I was only six years old, but I thought, ‘wow, this is so cool.’”

That sparked her interest in science. Later in life, when she studied biochemistry as an undergraduate, Alexandria realized she wanted to pursue more—but wasn’t sure which direction to take.

“My mom encouraged me to pursue my curiosity,” Alexandria said. “After a lot of reflection, I realized I was fascinated by neuroscience because the brain is powerful and, as a field, we do not know enough about it. That was just so surprising to me.”

Alexandria’s curiosity about neuroscience inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at WSU.

“I’m the first generation of my family to pursue a Ph.D., and the first to pursue science on both sides of my family,” she says.

Alexandria invited her mother, father, stepmother, and grandparents, who are supportive of her education, to visit her lab and to show them how she worked with zebrafish.

“This experience allowed them to see the scientific world in a way they had never been exposed to before,” says Alexandria. “It was amazing for them to see the work that I’m doing, and for them to see that such little fish can solve such important questions in neuroscience. The questions they asked helped facilitate my own understanding of my research and helped me see that a scientist should be able to communicate with non-scientist audiences.”

Alexandria believes that others could also benefit from visiting labs.

“Having students and groups outside of the university come to see different laboratory demonstrations opens the door to talk about scientific research and gives them a vocabulary to ask different questions,” she says.

Time Management and Work-Life Balance

Alexandria found the research in Coffin’s lab far different than anything she had ever done.

“I had never worked with mice, I had never worked with fish, and I had never thought about how to move a project forward,” she says.

With a strong work ethic and desire to learn new techniques, Alexandria kept asking questions and learning from different people within and outside her field.

In addition to the challenges of her research project, Alexandria was also adjusting to her move from California to Washington and figuring out how to manage her time for classes and research. She believes that good time management is extremely necessary to stay organized. She is married and has two dogs, and, like many graduate students at WSU, seeks a balance between learning and living.

“I managed my time well because I love to plan,” she says. “I realize one of the hardest things about graduate school is managing so many things at once. It really comes to planning your time and being efficient.”

Alexandria is a great example of how to plan and stay on top of projects, according to Dr. Coffin.

“Every semester, our lab devotes a meeting to planning, where we share our professional and personal goals for the semester and our plan to meet those goals,” says Dr. Coffin. “Each time, Alex shows up with a detailed, color-coded calendar and timeline for our goal-setting session. She has taught me a lot about planning and time management!”

Alexandria’s time management plan included setting goals for the different stages of her study: progress of her research, publication of her manuscripts, and conference attendance. Her plan consisted of one-year, three-year, and five-year “big” plans.

Besides these “big” plans, Alexandria made some “small” plans pertaining to what she should complete each week. She also highlighted true deadlines, which were usually two weeks before the assigned deadline, keeping in mind any potential changes that might affect the original plan.

“Accepting changes and learning to build flexibility into the plan for things that don’t always work out is important,” she says.

Alexandria plans to graduate next year. Although she has planned three pathways for her career after graduation: to be academic faculty, to work in industry, and to do science writing or journalism, she has not decided which one she will actually step into.

“No matter which pathway I will choose, I always keep in mind that being a scientist is a way of thinking and solving problems,” says Alexandria. “Many people who do not practice benchwork are still scientists and doing great things because of how they think about what they are doing and how they see the world.”

About Neuroscience at WSU

The doctoral program in neuroscience at WSU trains students in the skills needed to create an independent research career. Research-intensive, the program engages students in research activities and/or teaching activities that include a tuition waiver and stipend. Students attend seminars, actively present their research findings, and develop skills to become independent, self-motivated investigators.